Thursday, October 31, 2013

Defining Professionalism

We often know what it isn’t. But, do we know what it is?

What does it mean to be professional?

The Merriam-Webster definition of professionalism is "the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person"; and it defines a profession as "a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation." Great. While this definition tells us what the word means, it doesn’t do much to help us understand what qualities, traits and characteristics are displayed by a professional. One can certainly possess specialized knowledge and skills in a particular discipline, which may qualify one as a professional in that discipline, but what does it mean to be professional, or display professionalism?

A large part of being perceived as a professional has to do with the way you behave toward and present yourself to others.  This can entail everything from the simple to the sublime. Possessing the following characteristics, or developing them, will go a long way toward establishing yourself as a true professional, regardless of what your profession – or your job – entails (in no particular order):

Honor Your Commitments. If you make a promise to your boss, co-workers, or clients, keep it. If you won't be able to meet the deadline, produce a report or fill another job task, let your boss, co-worker or client know as soon as possible.

Be Honest. Tell the truth and be upfront about where things stand. Don’t exaggerate your knowledge, skills or abilities. Don’t lie about why you can’t come to work, or finish a project.

Be On Time: Showing up late, whether for work or meetings, says you don't care about your job and don’t respect the time and effort of others.

Be Reliable and Consistent. Do what you say you’ll do, when you say you’ll do it (see Honor Your Commitments). You want people to be able to depend on you.

Be Competent. Be good at what you do, and rather than letting your skills or knowledge become outdated, always strive to keep current in your area of expertise, whatever that may be.

Stay Focused on Work. Don’t let your private life interfere with your job. Don’t spend time at work attending to personal matters. Don’t air your dirty laundry at work. While confiding in a close friend at work is usually okay, sharing too much information with the entire office is not. Be careful who you talk to, especially when discussing problems with your significant other or family.

Don't Gossip: While you may be tempted to tell your co-workers what you heard about Suzy or Sam down the hall, gossiping makes you look like a middle school student. If you know something that simply must be shared, tell someone who has nothing to do with your workplace, like your sister, brother or best friend. And if the "gossip" is vicious? Think about just forgetting it and let it go.

Be Accountable. When something goes wrong, don’t look for ways to avoid blame or pass it off on someone else. Taking responsibility for a mistake -- and then learning from it – is a true mark of a professional.

Support Others. Share the spotlight with co-workers, take the time to show others how to do things properly, and lend an ear when necessary.

Be Humble. If you're unsure how to perform a task, ask for help. If you're too proud to take direction or criticism, you're putting pride ahead of the good of the team and the health of your career.

Communicate with Care. Avoiding comments that make others uncomfortable or undervalued is expected, of course, but true professionals also grasp the soft communication skills, as well. For example, when you give feedback, be careful to do it in a way that will be helpful and constructive, rather than belittling. Listen to input from others even when you think you know best; you may learn something!

Dress Appropriately: Not every job requires a suit and tie. Whether you have to be "business formal" or you can wear more casual clothes, your appearance should always be neat and clean. A wrinkled suit looks no better than a ripped pair of jeans. Wear the type of clothing your employer requires or desires. Revealing clothing is a no-no in probably 95% of workplaces. Flip flops, shorts and lingerie strap tops should be saved for the weekends.

Fight Fair: It’s a fact that you will occasionally have disagreements with your co-workers, or maybe even your boss. You might think that something should be done one way, while someone else thinks it should be done another way. No matter how upset you are or how strongly you believe you are right, screaming isn't allowed, nor is name calling or door slamming. Calmly explain your opinion and be ready to walk away if the other person can't be swayed or if he or she begins to lose control.

Be Kind. Treating others with patience and respect enables constructive criticism and stronger relationships. Treat others as you'd like to be treated.

Be Prepared. True professionals are always prepared. This requires planning, timeliness, and attention to detail. Focus on improving your time management and planning skills, so that you're always in control.

No list is exhaustive, and this one certainly isn’t either. However, it’s a fair bet that displaying these attributes will ensure you’re seen as the professional you want to be.

Professionalism is at its core, I believe, a state of mind. If you don't have it now, you can achieve it, by selecting how you act and what you do, by simply deciding that you want it. Every job has value. If a job needs to be done, then it is worth doing. If it’s worth doing, it’s certainly worth doing well. Conducting oneself professionally is part and parcel of doing a job well.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What’s Up with the Affordable Care Act?

It’s more like what’s up, down, in, out and sideways. The last year or so has been predictably crazy, with more changes and delays than you can shake a stick at. Not to mention that many of the regulations that will dictate how everything will work are still being written, or being revised before ever being released. For HR and benefits folks, keeping up with this monster is challenging at best.

The recent government shutdown has left its own mark on this landmark law. The congressional debate over the shutdown, according to the HR Policy Association, included three possible amendments that may well be a part of future changes; since none of them made it into the deal to reopen the government at this point. One would delay the $63 so-called "reinsurance" fee that must be paid by health insurance issuers (and that will be added to the premiums employers pay for group health plans). This $63 is imposed on each and every body an employer sponsored plan covers and is intended to help offset the costs of high-risk individuals in the individual market. The second is to change the definition of full-time employee used to determine how many employees a business has, and which of them has to be offered coverage, which in turn will determine if penalties will be imposed on those businesses for not offering the required health insurance coverage. Currently that definition is anyone who averages 30 hours a week or more. Traditionally, and fairly universally, 40 hours a week has been the base definition of full-time. Lastly, a call to eliminate the tax on medical devices. This is a 2.5% tax on all medical devices (think pacemakers, artificial knees, hearing aids, etc.) charged to the manufacturer of the device, which of course, will be eventually passed along to the consumer, via the charge the insurance company will pay for that pacemaker you need.

Additionally, the 30 hours per week question was the subject of a hearing in the House Small Business Committee's Subcommittee on Health and Technology, where support for increasing it was expressed by the ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Janice Hahn (D-CA).

Many in the business community – and union leaders – have criticized this definition, saying it will cause businesses to reduce the hours of part-time employees below 30, and prevent them from working additional hours that would result in them averaging 30 hours per week or more, in order to keep them below the current definition of "full-time". As a result, members of the House and Senate have already introduced the Forty Hours is Full Time Act of 2013. This bill would increase to 40 the number of hours an employee would need to work to be considered "full time." While there are many who argue that this is a "myth" of sorts, I happen to believe that any number of jobs that are negatively affected by this law is too many. Our economy can’t really sustain any hit to jobs. Further, why trash-can a long standing concept of what is full-time, forcing business to change many policies and procedures based on it, or to manage to two different definitions resulting in both administrative hardships as well as confusion among employees?

The big news in recent days is the rollout of the health insurance exchanges, or marketplaces. To describe this rollout as rocky would be a bit of an understatement. The federal exchange, has been plagued with serious glitches since opening on October 1st.  Several of the state exchanges have had problems as well. It appears that many of the problems have stemmed from the requirement for people to register, and enter all their personal information, before even being able to browse the health plans available, before they’re ready to buy. Notably, Kentucky’s website did not require people to register first before browsing; and their website has had few problems, and has since enrolled tens of thousands of people. Compare that with Maryland, who has managed, as of Monday, October 21, 2013, to enroll fewer than 2,500. President Obama at one time likened the process to that of shopping on Does Amazon require you to enter your name, address, age, marital status, children’s info, income, payment method, etc. before browsing the site for the items you want to buy? Ummm, nope.

As reported by CNBC, a survey conducted by uSamp found that 50% of those surveyed were not able to log on without encountering technical problems like errors and "try again later" messages, many were kicked out mid-process. 25% of those trying to get on the websites were not able to create an account at all. Only 19% had no problems. cost three times as much as originally anticipated, and will most certainly cost even more to fix.

Also, a recent CNN story reported that an insurance industry source stated that insurers are receiving faulty information about new customers from, including duplicate forms, and missing and garbled information.

Yesterday, NBC News reported that the deadline for signing up for coverage could be delayed by as much as six weeks. But it wasn’t clear if that would require approval by Congress or could be done by the Department of Health and Human Services administratively. Under the prospective change, individuals will only be expected to have started enrollment by March 31 to avoid incurring the penalty. Meanwhile, and this is interesting, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is drafting a bill to delay the mandate for a year.   Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, called for an extension of the open enrollment period to allow people more time to purchase coverage. Who didn’t see this coming?

During the hearings today, a lot of grilling took place – including that of executives of CGI Federal, the main contractor hired to build They all spent a lot of time pointing fingers, (CGI saying it was not its decision to launch the website in spite of known problems, but the government’s) and another interesting, but quite predictable fact was revealed: the software was not thoroughly tested before going live. It was tested for barely two weeks before October 1st.

Probably my favorite quote of the whole thing was when Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, a Democrat, responded to statements that the site crashing was due to a high volume of traffic, "Amazon and eBay don't crash the week before Christmas, ProFlowers doesn't crash on Valentine's Day." That was priceless.

There are more hearings to come in the next week or so. Can’t wait for that. 

One of the most significant delays of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act was the delay of the penalties to businesses for not offering health insurance to full-time (30 hours per week) employees. The so-called Employer Mandate. Many people are not aware that the requirement to offer health insurance (deemed of minimum value and affordable) was not delayed itself. Only the penalty was delayed. However, since the penalty was delayed, the reporting required of businesses also had to be delayed. This reporting is designed to tell the government, among other things, which people (employees) would be eligible for a subsidy should they choose to buy insurance through one of the exchanges, and therefore possibly trigger a penalty to the business. What does that mean? It means that people filling out the online applications at the exchanges are on the honor system when asked on the application whether their employer offers them health insurance, and when asked what their household income is, etc. So, there is no way to reliably validate whether any particular person is legitimately eligible for a subsidy under the Affordable Care Act. It has been reported that once the employer mandate is fully in effect, that efforts will be made to verify eligibility for the subsidy, and to seek reimbursement from those people who were not truly eligible. I don’t see that happening, do you?

Finally, it has been frequently reported that Congress exempted itself from the law. That is not true. However, they did afford themselves a benefit that the rest of us don’t get. Under the law, if you are offered health insurance from your employer, but choose to buy insurance through the exchange, you will not receive the employer contribution to the premium you would have received if you took the insurance your employer offered (also, many employees pay their premiums with pre-tax money, but will lose that benefit as well when purchasing on the exchanges). But guess what? Congress, their staff, the President, Vice President and their political appointees, will still receive their employer contributions to their premiums, and most likely the pre-tax treatment of their premiums. Nice.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Time’s A Wastin’

"I need so much time for doing nothing that I have no time for work."
Pierre Reverdy 

It's no wonder that so many workers are tempted to waste time doing personal business on the Internet during the workday because of all the conveniences it provides: from shopping to reading local news to communicating with family and friends, the Web allows us to do just as many personal tasks as it does business-related functions. Few managers will argue much about the occasional breather or decompression provided by a quick look at the news. But too much, is……well, too much.

The sheer number of available distractions is mind-numbing. More than a billion Facebook users upload more than 350 million photos each day. More than 100 hours of video are posted to YouTube every minute. Huge volumes of new data and photos are uploaded to the web continually.

A recent survey from found that the amount of time Americans waste at work jumped 5% from last year. Web surfing and using social media were again near the top of the list, with chatting with co-workers (not work-related) the biggest time killer. News sites, surprisingly enough, came in high. (Uh, oh. Does SHRM count as a news site?) The individual website topping the list, at 15% of all respondents, was Facebook. 

82% of employees age 26-32 and 76% of employees age 33-39 waste time on a daily basis.

Guess what? The sector with the most wasted time is government (there really isn’t any surprise here, is there?); 25% of government workers said they waste a few hours a day at work. On the other hand, the industry that wastes the least time is healthcare, with 16% of workers claiming they never waste time on the job. Folks on the West coast wasted more time than those on the East. 

Why do people waste so much time? 

When you hire people, you expect them to use their time efficiently and do the job right.  According to data from the survey, employees give the following reasons:

34% of employees say they are not challenged
34% say they work long hours
32% say there’s no incentive (motivation) to work harder
30% are unsatisfied with their work
23% are bored
18% say it’s due to low wages

What do you do about it?
There is an ideal balance between productive activity and down time. It's unrealistic to expect 100% productive activity all day, every day. These work distractions existed before the Internet. The key is for companies to manage these time wasters to a workable level.  Here are a few things to consider.

Challenge employees.  Since many respondents to the survey cited boredom or lack of motivation or satisfaction as reasons for wasting time, challenge them. This doesn’t mean just piling on more work. What it does mean is that you can give them more or different responsibility and challenge their initiative, decision-making and creative skills. 

Be more visible. Have managers and supervisors spend more time on the office floor. It’s not necessary to look over shoulders; the simple presence of management can be a deterrent to time wasting. Additionally, the increased interaction might lead to a better understanding of problems that exist and possible solutions. 

Have a strong technology policy – and enforce it. Define what is and is not acceptable; clearly communicate the consequences of unacceptable usage. Also consider an acceptable usage policy for personal mobile devices in the workplace. Ultimately, they need to know that there is work to be done first and foremost and that abuse will lead to restrictions.

Hold your managers and supervisors to the same policy and hold them accountable for the productivity of their staff. 

Here’s an interesting little tidbit from a couple of these surveys: Imagine an employee who works 2,080 hours per year (260 days). If she is in the top the bracket of time wasters, she wastes 520 hours per year. That’s 25% of her total hours at work spent on unproductive activities. Now, multiply that, or even a part of that, by a large percentage of your employee base. Do you want to have that much time, and money, wasted?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

References: Giving and Getting ‘Em

Why are we doing this to ourselves?

This week’s post is really more a rant. Sorry, but sometimes it just has to be said.

As an HR professional, I do the much of the interviewing at my organization, and I conduct all the reference and background checks. To say this is a chore I intensely dislike is a bit of an understatement. In fact, it often sets my hair on fire. Hiring managers and HR folks both know how frustrating and yet how very necessary it is to check applicants’ references. Unfortunately, it can be an exercise in futility, or at least one with very few returns.

It’s no secret that hiring managers have learned that in order to get substantive references, they have to bypass HR at the applicant’s former employers. But there’s a dirty little secret that many of you may not know: HR pros often avoid each when checking references. Why? Because we torture each other by either using cryptic language or worse, refuse to give any worthwhile information. Sure, some of us are able to cultivate relationships within our own industry, or in our own geographic location and are able to speak with one another openly, but we do have to try to get information from employers with whom we’re not familiar and with whom we don’t have a relationship. While HR is often not the one to decide whether to provide references, we’re the ones to toe the line and follow our company policy. Companies will heed the advice of their own attorney, or the many other attorneys who advise never to give more than name, rank and serial number.

Why do we do this? Why do we, and our management, fail to realize that all this stonewalling only makes it difficult for good employees to find new jobs, and results in bad employees being passed around?

The short and simple answer is that "we" want to avoid the potential liability should anything we say about a former employee be considered defamatory or discriminatory. Some people even still believe it’s illegal to give a "bad" reference. It isn’t; not at all. There are no federal laws restricting what information an employer can disclose about former employees. If someone was fired, the company can say so. We can also give a reason. For example, if someone was fired for stealing or falsifying a time sheet, we can explain why the employee was terminated. The employee failed a drug test? Yep, we can say that, knowing we have the drug test results. Did the employee arrive late to work 5 times a month for 6 months, which can be officially documented through time sheets or automated attendance systems? Yep, we can say that. Did the employee fail to meet documented sales goals after repeated coaching? Yeah, we can say that.

Would it surprise you to find out that several states actually have laws that require employers to provide (usually on request) to former employees "service letters" that state the reason the employee was separated from service? (Check this out) Yeah. And those same laws provide a certain amount of indemnity to employers who provide this information – factual and accurate information – in good faith compliance with the law.

Legally, we can say anything that is factual and accurate, and non-discriminatory. Even in states that do not have laws requiring service letters, giving factual and accurate information provides us with protection from claims of defamation.

However, factual and accurate (or the failure to be factual and accurate) may be where some have gotten caught up in the lawsuit trap, and why now, we’re all so damned afraid to speak openly and honestly about the performance of former employees.

So, as to not leave this as just my rant of the week, here are some ways we can be useful to both our fellow employers, and to those employees who deserve to find another job without our making it difficult for them:

Just the facts: Limit your answers and comments to accurate, documented information. Don’t speculate about the possible reasons for the poor performance or bad qualities; keep your opinions and speculation to yourself.

Keep it real: Don’t give false flattery, either. And never gloss over serious behavior or performance flaws of former employees. You do not want to get caught up in a potential negligent referral claim from the other employer.

Get written releases: You can do this on the front end or the back end. During the application process, there is often a notice/release the applicant signs allowing the potential employer to perform a criminal background check, reference checks, etc. These can be provided to the applicant’s former employers when you begin the reference checking process. Or, you can have a practice of having all separating employees sign a release, an agreement that gives you permission to provide information to prospective employers (and promises not to sue over the information you provide).

Designate one person to provide references: Have one trusted person in your organization authorized to provide reference information on former employees. Designating one person will lessen the chance that anyone will say something that may come back and bite you. Normally, this person would be in HR. Companies should be allowing HR, who are trained and have the requisite knowledge to avoid liability, to give and get references.

In sum, don’t give false information, or make disclosures of private information with malicious intent, or with the intent to mislead. Don’t violate employment discrimination laws (i.e., only giving good references to former white employees, and bad references to former black employees). Simply be truthful. We should never be afraid to give accurate information to prospective employers. Maybe, one by one, if we can start responding honestly and accurately, we’ll begin to receive the same courtesy when we’re making those reference calls.

*sigh* Yeah, I don’t really think so, either, but it’s worth a try, isn’t it?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Employee Recognition Programs – Pass or Fail?

Employee recognition programs are all the rage, and actually have been for decades. As business leaders, we want to show our employees that we appreciate their hard work, and especially appreciate when they perform above and beyond the standard expectations. But, are we getting it wrong?

A research project completed by Bersin & Associates came up with some very interesting results. In organizations where recognition occurs, employee engagement, productivity and customer service are about 14 percent better than in those where recognition does not occur. However, while millions of dollars are spent on various recognition programs, 87% of those programs focus on tenure (service awards); recognizing people for staying with the company. Their research found that tenure-based programs have virtually no impact on organizational performance.

In researching for this article, I’ve found similar results from many studies and surveys. While we’re all about recognizing people, we often aren’t very effective in rewarding the behavior we really want to see repeated. It appears that we either focus on the wrong things, or structure the programs in ways that don’t motivate employees in the way we would like.

For instance:

Employee of the Month programs are a popular form of recognition. However, they tend not to be all that effective at rewarding employees. Rarely do these types of incentives identify what must be done to get the award. As a result, choosing the winner sometimes becomes a chore management must perform, deciding whose turn is it this month, or is perceived by employees as a popularity contest. Most organizations fail to establish measurable and recognizable criteria. The selection is not transparent, so it fails in its goals for employee motivation and retention.

Attendance programs/contests. Why do you feel you need to reward someone for meeting one of the most basic requirements of a job – showing up? There’s no real motivation to do a great job; showing up is not doing a great job.

Money is not employee recognition.   It’s critical to understand that money is not employee recognition. Money is compensation. Most employees look at bonuses and compensation not as employee recognition of exemplary performance but an expected entitlement.

It’s not individual.  Whether they enjoy a baseball game on the weekend or a steak dinner, it’s important you find out what your employees want. This is insight into what motivates them.  Recognition for great work should be personalized, because nothing will discourage your employees more than a ‘one size fits all" reward. 

It’s not spontaneous.  Recognition and reward should be tied to a specific achievement and received ‘in the moment’ to encourage repetition of the desired behaviors. Too often rewards and recognition are delayed until the end of the month or the end of the year.

It’s too hard.  If your employees have to jump through hoops to give or receive recognition, they’ll lose interest.  It doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective.  Avoid putting obstacles in the way by including everyone and encouraging recognition in all forms – peer-to-peer, e-cards, on-the-spot; whatever works.  Don’t be afraid to mix it up and keep it interesting to encourage involvement. 

It’s unfair.  Recognition should be an equal opportunity. If it’s structured to favor only top performers, it’s not only unfair but unrealistic for the majority of your team.  Instead, put objectives in place and tie recognition to your corporate values so that everyone has the chance to be rewarded for their input.

So, let’s go back to Bersin’s study and see what might make for good recognition programs. Examples include:

1. Recognize people based on specific results and behaviors. Give your employees awards for specific behaviors and performance. For instance, delivering outstanding customer service when a particular problem occurred. This creates a culture of "doing the right thing."

2. Implement peer to peer recognition – not top down. Employees indicated they feel much better when they are recognized by their peers. Why is this? Peers know what you’re doing on a day to day basis, so when they "thank you" for your efforts the impact is much more meaningful.

3. Share recognition stories. One of the most powerful practices identified in the study was "story telling." When someone does something great and is recognized by their peers, tell people about it. You should mention them in a newsletter or company blog. These stories create employee engagement and learning.

4. Make recognition easy and frequent. Make it simple for employees to recognize each other. People who do great things are now visible to everyone else!

5. Tie recognition to your own company values or goals. When you give someone a "thank you" award, the award is tied to your company’s strategy (customer care, innovation, teamwork, or even a revenue or cost-cutting goal). I truly believe this is probably the best way to make any recognition program a success for an organization. Rewarding employees for behavior that fulfills your mission, vision and values will serve to strengthen the organization and telegraph exactly what you, as leaders, see as important.

Other keys to good employee recognition programs:

  • Attainable and concrete goals
  • Multiple winners
  • Employee-specific rewards (i.e., what motivates a part-time, temporary employee is not the same as what motivates a long-term employee)
  • Use individual "surprises" rather than an awards banquet—it’ll keep the focus on a job well done
  • Employees at all levels should be recognized for their work, including supervisors and managers
  • Recognition programs should come from the managers who have a day-to-day interaction with the employee, the one who manages, appraises and corrects them.

Ultimately, use your organization’s core values as a foundation to your recognition program. Your core values should be a guideline for your employees to know which behaviors you value as an organization and which behaviors will be rewarded.